Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted Friday that Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani posed an “imminent threat” to U.S. interests in the Middle East, sparring with reporters who questioned the nation’s top diplomat on the nature of the intelligence that prompted a drone strike against Tehran’s chief military commander.
“We had specific information on an imminent threat, and those threats from him included attacks on U.S. embassies. Period. Full stop,” Pompeo told reporters at a White House briefing Friday morning.
The secretary’s certainty before the press corps appeared to run counter to his remarks in a Fox News interview Thursday night, when he told host Laura Ingraham that Soleimani was plotting a “series of imminent attacks” but added: “We don’t know precisely when, and we don’t know precisely where.”
Pressed Friday on how he knew the Soleimani threat was “imminent” if he did now know when or where the Iranian general planned to strike, Pompeo insisted that his two sets of remarks were “completely consistent thoughts.”
“I don’t know exactly which minute. We don’t know exactly which day it would have been executed, but it was very clear: Qassem Soleimani himself was plotting a broad, large-scale attack against American interests and those attacks were imminent,” he said.
Soleimani’s targets included “American embassies, military bases [and] American facilities throughout the region,” Pompeo said.
Later in the briefing, when Pompeo was asked to provide his definition of the word “imminent,” he asserted that administration officials “would have been culpably negligent had we not recommended to the president that he take this action” against Soleimani.
“This was going to happen, and American lives were at risk,” Pompeo said.
At a campaign rally in Ohio on Thursday evening, President Donald Trump addressed his order to kill Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite paramilitary Quds Force, in a U.S. drone strike last week near Baghdad’s international airport.
“Soleimani was actively planning new attacks, and he was looking very seriously at our embassies, and not just the embassy in Baghdad,” Trump said. “But we stopped him, and we stopped him quickly, and we stopped him cold.”
Pompeo was also questioned as to why he and Trump could publicly discuss the threats to the American embassies — at the secretary’s news conference and at the president’s rally — when several congressional lawmakers complained they were not told of such threats during a classified administration briefing.
“We did,” Pompeo said, contradicting the lawmakers. “We told them about the imminent threat. All of the intelligence that we’ve briefed, that you’ve heard today, I assure you in an unclassified setting we’ve provided in the classified setting, as well.”
But Pompeo offered a less definitive response when asked specifically if administration officials had informed the lawmakers that Soleimani planned to target the embassies.
“I’m not going to talk about the details of what we shared in the classified setting,” he said. “But make no mistake about it: Those leaders, those members of Congress who want to go access this same intelligence can see that very same intelligence that will reflect what I described to you and what the president said last night, as well.”
Immediately following the secretary’s session with reporters, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) accused Pompeo of misrepresenting the administration’s congressional briefing on Iran.
“I can tell you, he wasn’t at the same briefing I was. I did not — I did not — hear what he just said at that press conference,” Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC.
“I don’t know what the secretary is talking about,” he added. “I stayed for the entire briefing, including after I asked my questions. I stayed there even as he left because they abruptly ended the briefing. I didn’t hear what he just said.”
Photo: © Provided by POLITICO Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.